March 21, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Tom McAllister
In eighth grade, we read Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men; I spent the next two years imitating Salinger and Steinbeck. Every short story I wrote opened with lush descriptions of valleys and rivers, things I didn’t care about and had only occasionally observed. My protagonists were obsessed with suicide. Every story included a beautiful woman named Alexa, inspired by Alissa, the girl I thought I loved even though we barely spoke to each other (my friends had once convinced me to call her and ask her on a date; when she answered, I said, “I know you from school,” a line from The Simpsons, and then I hung up, an approach even less effective than it sounds). One of my favorite stories ended with a giant Pac-Man eating a lion before the lion could eat Alexa. Good ideas are good ideas.
My older brother, who had read Catcher in the Rye in high school, helped me to analyze some of the book’s symbolism, so in my essay I wrote about the brass ring and innocence and all that. My teacher held me after class and said I shouldn’t let my parents do my work for me. She couldn’t prove I’d cheated, or that my parents were the types to write a paper for me, so I wouldn’t get punished as long as I turned in a new essay. I spent the next few days intentionally writing a worse paper in order to avoid exceeding the low expectations of my teacher.
Later that year, I read a novel about a futuristic, waterless society, and instead of writing a traditional book report, I spent days mocking up a 4-page newspaper from this fictional world. Our temperamental dot-matrix printer continually jammed and chewed up my pages, while I cursed and begged it to cooperate with my vision. I did not get an A on the assignment because I hadn’t followed directions. When they asked us to write poetry, I turned in something cynical and dark about corrupt police (I didn’t know anything about police corruption, but I knew it as a concept), and the principal called my parents in for a meeting. “We’d rather he just write something nice,” he said.
In Catholic school, my job was to show up and shut up and fill in the blanks. The whole point is to be mediocre enough not to draw attention to yourself. Excelling meant you were bad. Failing meant you were especially bad. When I teach college freshmen now, I can tell the students who have come to me from 12 years of Catholic school because they may be polite and quiet but they also have no idea how to join a conversation. They are uncomfortable with open-ended assignments. They want to be told exactly how to write each sentence. If they’d ever tried to challenge themselves, their teachers shut it down as quickly as possible. I’m lucky to have inherited my parents’ stubbornness.
Our eighth grade teachers always told us we were the worst group they’d ever had. A student two years before us had poisoned a teacher’s Diet Coke with dog shampoo, and another had been arrested for selling drugs on school grounds, so this always struck me as a little overblown. Probably it was something they said to every group, a pedagogy based on shame. They held a big ceremony at the start of the year to unveil the school’s new slogan—FRO, or Faith, Respect, Obedience. Our pastor stood on stage, defining each word, detailing the ways in which we were lacking. While he spoke, someone blurted out a high-pitched squeal, our cohort’s understanding of what a woman sounded like during sex. The principal picked up the handbell that usually signaled the end of recess, and he stomped around the room ringing it in people’s faces. “That person. The one who made that sound,” he said, still ringing, “Will come to me now.”
Nobody came to him. We already understood that he wielded no real power. Our school had divested itself of the nuns and other trappings of the Catholic schooling our parents had known: the cruel, petty, tyranny of rulers cracked against knuckles, the paralyzing fear of the church’s authority figures. What remained was a husk of the past, a nostalgia for a time when teachers could hit the students and get away with it. The principal rang the bell again and we went back to our classrooms where we memorized the Beatitudes. It’s hard to overemphasize how pointless it all was.
One afternoon six of us got in trouble for having in some way demonstrated inadequate levels of F, R, or O. We were removed from the classroom and sat on the floor of the principal’s office—he had chairs, but our chair privileges had been revoked. For the rest of the day, we wrote on scratch paper, “I will show the proper respect and obedience to my school and Jesus Christ.” In the middle I mixed in my own sentences, sneaking in curse words and inside jokes. Nobody would ever read any of it. When the principal left us alone in his office, we rifled through his drawers looking for something embarrassing or incriminating, but all we found were files. He was the biggest villain in our world, but he was, I now realize, just a middle-aged guy doing a job he hated. That evening, my dad wrote a letter to the principal saying he understood I deserved to be disciplined but wished it could be done in a meaningful way that didn’t remove me from class. The next day, the principal read the note, shook his head, and threw it out without saying anything. What else is there to say about school? No wonder so many kids are ruined for education by the time they get to my classroom. No wonder so many people think it’s all just a waste of time.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He is the co-host of the weekly podcast, Book Fight!, and nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He teaches at Temple University and lives in New Jersey.
Excellent essay. Suppression makes writers of us all. In high school I got a D- on an essay–I wrote it in first person, against the rules. I entered it in a state essay contest and won. The grade was never changed. College was a little better as was grad school. I learned most from my grandmother.
I’m going to check out you novels.